Why? What reason did I have for going abroad again . . . putting myself through that energy-intensive wringer that any such journey involves? Everybody asked - and frankly it was my own puzzlement, for I had no sufficient answer.
To renew old connections, I'd reply. But it seemed a masking response, hardly enough justification for pouring more than a thousand dollars into six weeks of what, to begin with, looked like pure indulgence. Hardly comfortable indulgence, as it turned out, what with the hassles of getting it underway, the endless strain and struggle of pushing it through a stretching winter that simply wouldn't quit . . . I learned one thing, for sure: that I'm not as young as I was in `91. Not that I imagined I was, but I think it was a subtext agenda of mine - to prove to myself that I could still handle such a strenuous challenge to body and spirit.
Well, yes, I managed it . . . but I could never make it through a full season again. And did I really need to learn that?
There were more subtext agendas in this recent adventure than I think I even know about. Rejuvenation, reliving the past, celebrating the attainment of seventy years (in a manner `proper' to my sense of self), proving again that tight-budget travel abroad is possible (though I faltered on this one - my spending ran closer to $200 per week, this time, than $100), and `spending down' from a level of gradually accumulated resources that have been crowding the borders of what my subsidized status in life allows . . . it is a strange life, indeed, that urges one to travel abroad in order to remain in a condition of poverty, but such is the fact of it.
But there was no really compelling reason, in the nature of a personal path clearly indicated, for undertaking this journey. Last time, there was; and every major thing I've done over the past twenty years has had that sense of a necessary or advisable direction. The nearest thing I could claim, in that respect, was a recognition that this might be my best moment for such a journey (in personal cyclic terms) for the rest of the decade. But that makes little more sense, as a motivating reason, than looking for a surgical procedure because there's not likely to be a better time for it.
Thoroughly contrary to my accustomed way of life, then, it would seem to have evolved from a lapse in consciousness. I didn't even wait for the fullness of the year's sprouting time, before booking my flight - there was no other choice if I wanted a decent discount. But that's the reasoning of the `mind in control,' and I really should have known better. It was the first domino in a falling line of them - and the worst of it was that I could see these bad moves and their disruptive effects as they fell into place. Transportation plans got kinked like the tangle of a bad fishing cast, and before it was done I was headed into a jumble of lesser bookings and visit commitments that might have earned me a diagnosis of dementia.
Believe me, you will not believe the schedule I shaped for myself. You will lose track of it, if I try and portray the entire sequence: London to Chester to Manchester to London to Dresden to Krakow to Gliwice to Prague to London to Bristol to Paris and back to London. Those were the places that my nights were spent, including three addresses in London and an overnight at Heathrow airport. When I further note that the Paris and London finale comprised a full third of my six-week schedule, you'll realize how maddening were the first four weeks of it.
And I should have known better. I had quite enough cues to either pull back from the whole thing, entirely, or else stop trying to plan it free of every insecurity - the characteristic tourist hangup. I should have seen, by the purely perverse way that things were happening, that I was playing the tourist game.
For instance, there was the stunning Web discovery of an outfit called Eurobus that runs a daily scheduled circle-route straight out of London, linking the prime cultural centers of Europe, arranged so that one can book the round-robin (which takes about five-days of travel time) over a two or three-week span, choosing points along the route for stays of one or several days, so long as the return to London is done in the allotted time. It was precisely what I wanted, and at half the cost of any rail-pass combination I could put together. But at the height of ecstasy, I learned that only late last year they had installed an arbitrary upper age limit of 38 on their passengers.
It so completely infuriated me that I spent a good part of the next few weeks engaged in a running online fusillade, through the travel newsgroups, broadcasting their discriminatory age-bias, even as I was pleading (fruitlessly) with them for a personal exemption.
It should certainly have told me that Providence had no red carpet laid out for me on this journey. In the end, I settled for a bargain-rate pair of flights out of London and back, with a tightly limited Continental agenda to fulfill that part of my journey - one hop to Paris, and an earlier one to Leipzig, from where I could take regional rail for a minimal eastern circuit, before returning to London - cheaper, still, than I could do it by rail alone. But no sooner had I booked these flights, irreversibly, than I discovered a new Web site listing all of the bargain flights originating in London, and saw that I'd been had again.
By takeoff time, I was at least feeling the spring energy, but already aware that I had an ordeal coming up. The first ten days in Britain were not yet entirely resolved, as to where I'd be. They got further compounded by complications in bus passage (IRA bomb warnings that forced a route detour, and an extended hassle around getting the least expensive fare), plus a feeling that I may have been more under foot than entirely welcome, with one or two of my hosts. They bore it cheerfully, but I could not help feeling somewhat abandoned, at times, to the witless course of a journey that had taken on a life of its own. It was all, by now, frozen in passage certificates, and I was trapped within their unbending timeframes.
Hence, the capstone night spent at Heath-row airport, in order to get a flight at a completely indecent hour to Leipzig. I'd managed to stow my extra piece of luggage, wherein I kept the assortment of books that I knew I'd purchase along the way (. . . and records, and clothing) at the home of a newly-acquainted friend - one of the few instances in which Providence had thus far indicated that I was not entirely left to founder on my own. I'm not sure what I'd have done if Paul Harrison had not turned up on my computer screen, including me in his group of Pantheist devotees gathered for online discussion. Happily, he picked up on my open plea for a night's shelter, which would follow the two weeks in eastern Europe.
Leipzig was not only strategically useful to me, as a direct gateway into the old east, but appropriate in a related way: it had given me my first view, last time, of Europe's eastern face. I stayed this time only a few hours, but long enough to see the tremendous change that has taken place in just six years. It is a totally different city than I saw before: in pace, mood, and the very sense of its being. Leipzig is well on the way to becoming a tourist `discovery' of some future year. But from my perspective, both better and worse for the change. The quiet, empty market square where I had my small cafe dinner, last time, is now rimmed with upscale shops, its center being ripped wide for new construction. The cafe is no longer there, and I had to settle for something more costly, promoted with more tourist-conscious flair, and far less satisfying.
I went directly on to Dresden, and had to find Simone's place all over again, for she had moved since last time. But I knew where, thanks to an Internet search - a tracking adventure in its own right. Our contact had faded over the years, and I had no response to my announcement of a return visit. So I went on the Web and tapped into the university there - everything in German, but I was able to rec-ognize the Department of English, and within it the American Literature section. I sent off an email message of search to several people in the department; and later found a site for the student newspaper from another avenue entirely. A few responses came back, and ultimately a letter from Simone, herself.
The change of six years was not so apparent in Dresden, as in Leipzig. Yes . . . a bit more activity; and the spanking-new trams were obvious - but also quiet, and they blended easily. One conspicuous eyesore was a flat-sided concrete building that had been allowed to fracture the lovely cityscape seen from the bridge, that I sketched for the book. I missed, also, that idyllic sense of quiet and leisure that had so charmed me in the residential neighborhood. But the streets were still of cobbled stone, and still nightly lit by gas mantles in four-burner clusters, elegant and remarkable to behold, a full century into the electrical age.
I found Simone not far from her old place, living in a divided portion of an old high-ceiling apartment, relic from another age. Imagine, if you will, a gracious old home split in two, with a second bedroom sliced from what had once been a large kitchen. But the old dining room remained intact, trimmed in burnished woods and graced with a wonderful glassed-in sun porch, the combination spacious enough, the ambience rich enough, for the soul to flourish - precisely what Simone required.
. . . When she could find the time for it, for she leads a double life, now: single mom and grant-funded college student majoring in psychology. On both counts, her life has much more promise, now, than it did when I last saw her. Her little Julian, almost five, is a shy kid, when it comes to bearded strangers, but he was readily entranced by the three small vehicle replicas Joy had purchased for me to give him.
I stayed five days there, before heading for Poland - a sufficient time for some much needed rest, and to bring a threatening chest cold under control with large doses of vitamin C, which I thankfully had brought along with me. Neither in Britain nor Germany could I find high dosage C tablets anywhere for sale. And the weather was not cooperating at all, so it was up to me, the preventative care.
On the Sunday I was there - and it was the only sunny day, though still cold - I went out to make another Servas acquaintance, one of only two new "Good Neighbors" that I was to meet, during the entire journey. Unsure of whether I'd connect with Simone right off, I had written to several prospective hosts in the area. I didn't need any, as it turned out, but it became important to meet with one of them. Klaus was close to my age, and he appeared to be the only Servas host in Dresden who had been there during that night of holocaust, more than fifty years ago, that had wiped out the heart of the city. I had to talk with him.
He was hard to find. They had moved into a new suburban development still in process of construction and there was no telephone service yet. Simone pointed me to the right bus, but instead of transferring at the end of its line I decided to walk the remaining distance, several further miles, picking up directional advice along the way. I found the new tract, all right, but it was pure guesswork among its unmarked, unpaved streets, as to which of the scattered homes they occupied. Nevertheless, I managed to find them - and Klaus, who could not be sure that I would even turn up that weekend - gave me a hearty welcome.
I considered myself an ambassador of a sort, from a forgetful but repentant America, carrying a personal and long, long overdue apology for our part in what happened on that terrible night in 1945, and I delivered it with as much gravity as the present situation allowed. Klaus accepted my words with equal solemnity, and then urged me to stop talking and eat lunch while it was still hot. His wife, Rosemarie, had prepared a delicious schnitzel, and I was ignoring my obligation to the present, so wrapped up was I in the past.
Klaus took me on a drive to a magnificent overlook above the Elbe River, surely one of the most picturesque viewpoints in all of Germany, before dropping me back at Simone's, late in the afternoon. Just across the river from Simone's, near the `Blue Wonder' Bridge, is where Klaus had lived when the bombing took place. He was 13 years old then, and remembers the flames in the night and the refugees afterward. But he only talked of it because I asked, and I only asked because I feel an odd sense of connection with Dresden, almost as if I must personally atone for it. The British usually speak of Coventry, and its destruction by German bombing, when Dresden is brought up; and there is no atrocity, of course, that can stand against the Holocaust of the death camps . . . but there is nothing to gain by one-down-manship in senseless suffering. The world will not become a better place, I think, until we each are ready to accept some responsibility for things evil that have happened in it. Then, and then only, will the cycle stop repeating.
I observed my 70th birthday at Simone's with a very modest celebration, and left early the next morning for the Polish border, planning to walk across at the town of Gorlitz and resume the journey on the other side. At last I had come to fresh, new territory, and by embarking on it in my old style of travel I went through the looking-glass into the land of unplanned adventure: my return, for five brief days, to Innocence Abroad!
I realized it before reaching Gorlitz, with an unwelcome shock. By some fortunate impulse, I went searching for my passport shortly after the train was underway. Fortunate in a kind of goodnews/badnews way: the bad news was that I should have done so before getting on the train; but the good news was that I didn't wait until I was right at the border, which would have lost me some extremely valuable time.
As it was, I spent the first half-hour of the ride to Gorlitz absorbed in the frantic and fruitless search through every vagrant pocket and baggage cranny for the missing blue-jacketed document. I couldn't have left it at Simone's, for I'd had no reason to take it from the zippered inside coat pocket where it should have been. But who could be sure of anything, with the increasingly hapless memory that has too often betrayed me?
I had to get back to Dresden - that much was clear. I gave some brief thought to leaving the train at a midway stop, and cut my losses on the return fare; but these were small town stops and I couldn't be sure of bank or money-changing facilities. I was fully back in my old mode of travel, having taken myself down to the last few Deutschmarks, and couldn't purchase a return ticket without getting more. So the first order of business arranged itself: on to Gorlitz, get some fresh German money, and then back to Dresden - a $33 setback, and probably only the start of it.
Within an hour of reaching the border town, I was on my way back, catching the Dresden train in time to save myself a two-hour wait for the next one. Very significant time, as it turned out, although it first seemed as though my luck had run dry, when I got there. I pinned my hopes on finding an American Consulate in Dresden, but there wasn't any. I was talking with the Information Booth folks at the Dresden Bahnhof and they spoke no English, so it was a bit spacy, but I was able to get from them the phone number of the American Embassy in Berlin, putting me into the next handicapped stage of the problem.
I found a telephone nearby that not only took credit cards, but had an option for readout instructions in English. It took eight or nine tries to get beyond the busy signal, and then I was rewarded with an endless recorded message . . . in German! There was nothing to do but wait for it to end, when it began again - but this time in English, and I was able to copy (hastily) several emergency numbers advised for those who had other than visa problems.
I tried the first of two that seemed to apply to me, but it turned out to be a wrong number - a private residence, where someone spoke English and told me so. The second number, however, gave me the jackpot. The man I spoke with immediately recognized my name and told me they had my passport at the Leipzig Consulate! It had been found by someone - angel circumstances I shall never know - and turned in, there, four days ago.
But I wasn't yet in the clear - there remained the small matter of actually getting it back. He gave me a number to call in Leipzig, and said he hoped I could reach them before the passport was forwarded on to Berlin.
When I tried, now, to call the Leipzig number, the phone would no longer accept my Visa card! The same card that had put me through to Berlin now flashed back "Invalid." Ready for anything, I pulled out my second Visa card, and it worked. Yes, they still had the passport in Leipzig. And by the rarest good fortune, a consulate person would be driving the 65 miles to Dresden that very evening and could deliver it to me!
So this calamity that could have cost me several days out - a trip to Berlin, the added railfare, and even $65 if I'd had to replace the passport - took a toll of just $33 (plus the $9 in phonecalls) and one day off schedule. The return of the precious document was accomplished that evening by an arranged rendezvous at the rail station, the courier spotting me by my passport photo. It all felt very CIA-ish, like some bad movie. And needless to say, Simone was surprised to see me back at her apartment for one more night.
The weather gods intervened overnight and put the trip to Poland on a different footing (literally). In place of Tuesday's cheery sunshine was a leaden-gray sky above a blanket of fresh snow at least a couple inches deep. Walking the half mile through Gorlitz to the river-crossing was slippery, and I even lost it once, but good reflexes saved me from anything worse than a slightly pulled calf muscle.
Across the bridge was Zgorzelek . . . small town Poland, as remote and strange as it had been six years ago, 80 miles to the north of here: a new currency to figure out, another language to fumble through, and a railroad station to find. Old and strangely familiar concerns, but the sense of adventure, of living on the edge, was as strong and fresh as ever.
My first move was into a bank. I found no English spoken, quite as expected, but I managed to indicate to a young woman at the teller station that I needed to know the rail fare to Krakow, as a guideline for how much money to exchange. I had brought with me $5 bills for just this occasion. She got the inform-ation by calling the rail station: the fare would be about $7.50 (for eight hours of travel!), so I took $15 worth of Polish zlotys. I then got her to draw a crude map to the rail station. I tried to give her a dollar for all this exceptional help, but she reacted as if I had made an indecent proposal, and ended our dialogue forthwith.
Onward, then, to the station, which I might never have found without her map - even with it, it was hard to spot . . . the most meager rail terminal imaginable. One station agent, three seedy travelers (?) slouched on a side-bench, watching my every move, and a grim silence pervading the entire scene.
I learned, to my chagrin, what the geographic situation should have told me to begin with: there was no traffic flowing from here to the railway hub of Wroclaw, except what originated in Dresden. Preliminary library research had indicated the rail link between Dresden and Wroclaw, from where I'd make the connection to Krakow, but I had wrongly supposed there would be more frequent local service than the inconveniently timed twice-daily run out of Dresden, which didn't come through until after midnight, or the alternative option at 8 a.m. It was only noon, now, which meant the unavoidable loss of another day.
Or did it? As I pondered the dilemma, the words of an old song, about loving the woman you've got if you can't have the one you love, flitted unreasonably into mind, along with the irrational prompt to go where the trains are going! I was looking at the schedule board, all this while, and saw that there were quite a few departures for someplace called Wegliniec, and so I asked the lady station agent where that might be. It was toward Wroclaw - about a third of the way - and she quickly grasped the drift of my next question. With little difficulty, she worked up a three-train-parlay that would get me to Wroclaw by 7:20 that evening! None of this transpired in English, of course, and I took the tickets as prescribed, wary of losing my gain if I should bring Krakow into the picture. It was enough, for now.
I had a bit more than an hour before train time, and I went back into town for something that might pass for lunch . . . which was just about the measure of what I got: something that passed for lunch. A spit-roasted half chicken served with a dry roll, barren of any salad or vegies. With a glass of tea, it cost only $1.50, however. While eating, I thought about the dumb decision to leave the Polish Servas list at home (to save weight), which left me without any good recourse if I should have to spend a frigid night in Wroclaw. But I was in magic territory, now, and the answer came along in due time.
On the second stage of the triple parlay, from Wegliniec to a larger town called Legnica, I found myself suddenly reprimanded by a fellow passenger for putting my feet upon the seat facing me. He came from across the aisle, well-dressed in the manner of a low-level official or a small businessman: clothing that was old but kept as neat as possible - blue serge, of course - and he himself somewhat well-preserved, I'd guess about 50. I didn't understand the scold, but it was clear from his arm movements what he was protesting. Well, far be it from me to deny anyone who cares about the condition of public property (or at least, what had been public property for most of his life), and I readily acceded to his request, dusting off the offended seat to show my sincerity.
He must have had some second thoughts about upbraiding an elderly stranger, for he shortly came back over to my seat to elaborate on something or other, in a more congenial mood. I was cheerful about it, myself, and we continued into one of these `conversations' in which neither really knows what the other is talking about. But I did get out my map to show him where I was going, upon which he went back to his briefcase and pulled out a rail schedule - a booklet of about 200 pages, actually, covering the southwest corner of Poland in complete detail. And then, to my complete amazement, he made it clear that he wanted me to have it. He was giving it to me, outright!
Well, it didn't take me long to discover - tables being tables, in any language - that I'd have exactly eleven minutes, in Wroclaw, to catch the last train that could get me to Krakow before midnight. In fact, before 3 a.m., which would not be a very good time at all, to arrive. It was precisely the information I need-ed, with time enough to use it . . . or else end up freezing through a sleepless night, either in Wroclaw or in Krakow.
Of course, there was still the not insignificant matter of whether my train into Wroclaw would be on time, and the more difficult proposition of getting a ticket and finding the right track in eleven minutes. But in Legnica, I had an hour and a half to spare, which was time enough to get the Krakow ticket in advance - if I could manage it. I ate a hearty dinner first, to fortify myself for the challenge. And then I began stalking a ticket agent, among the dozen there, who spoke some English. No luck at all on that score, and I could make no headway with the intricacies of buying a ticket for use from another station. Nor could I just buy a Krakow ticket from Legnica, because I hadn't enough zlotys left (after my indulgent dinner), and could not use my American cash.
I had to find someone who could translate, and so I began canvassing everyone in the station, travelers in particular. But it appeared hopeless. Finally, in one last try, two young women smiled and responded. One of them agreed to help me with the ticket agent . . . and then I found out that I was short by one zloty! In absolute desperation, I offered a dollar bill to the young lady for one zloty, and she took it. It was worth three zlotys, but I was on my way! The train got to Wroclaw on time, and I found the right track for the Krakow run, and finally breathed easy again, knowing that I'd get there before I could even have boarded the international train out of Dresden, back in Zgorzelec.
Despite the icy streets of Krakow, the midnight hour, and my being a day off schedule, Greg and Gorza welcomed me with the gusto of a lifelong friendship - though it had only been a few days, six long years ago. If so many things had changed over the course of time, they had not, and it was another hour, yet, before we could put the conversation on hold until the morrow.
Over, and over again, the journey was presenting me with contrasts, which can be very instructive when not idly absorbed and forgotten. This friendship, this very household, had not lost a thing. Yet, the city did not feel the same. It wasn't that worldliness had crept in, as with Leipzig and Dresden, but that everything which before had seemed so expansive was suddenly diminished for me - and I had to chalk it up to the difference between my two impressions, and to a new kind of contrast that the previous day's adventure had suddenly brought home to me: first-time experience is so much more rich because we are totally involved in it, totally alive and present; whereas the repeat - so often done to reclaim the old high - will almost invariably be second-rate. Only when I was going beyond repetition, on this journey, did I experience the highs of the last.
The opportunity approached again when Justyna turned up, the following day. She was my other new Servas host, and we were springing a surprise on Greg and Gorza, for they all knew each other. But I had only met Justyna online, when I discovered her email address in the Polish Servas list. I saw her, now, for the first time - a tall, dark-haired, rather attractive woman in her mid-20s - and I remarked that she was, after all, as beautiful as me (ref-erencing my final email message to her). She fired back, just as easily, "A bit more, I think!"
We had a fine early evening meal together, the sort of inter-cultural festivity that Servas generates so well - I prepared my special version of fried matzoh for everyone - and then I took off with Justyna for her home town of Gliwice, not quite half the rail distance back toward Wroclaw, where I was to spend this one night before heading for Prague. It was much tighter timing than a Servas visit should have, but filled enough with friendship and shared activity to make up for it.
Justyna is part of a university scene, engaged there in a diversity of activities including computer labs and a quite accomplished choral performance group (which I know, because she gave me one of their tapes). It just happened that this latter group was holding an April birthday party, that night, for several whose natal days were clustered at mid-month. Since my own had just come and gone, it was perfectly fitting that I should be smuggled into the college dorm where it was happening.
What a lark that was! It has been a long time since I last enjoyed a coed party scene, and I'm happy to say that nothing has changed! (Except me, of course - I've become a bit too old for those gyrations, though I was sorely tempted when invited by one cute redhead to the dance floor. It wasn't modesty that stayed me, but an awareness that I had three weeks of travel still ahead.)
In the morning, I had a chance to talk with Justyna's mother - to show her that life may have barely begun, by age 55 - and then Justyna went with me to see that I got the right bus toward the Czech border, and had enough local money with me to pay the $3 fare for the two-hour ride. With little necessary luck, I should be able to cross the border at Cieszyn and get the 1:52 train to Prague.
Oh, yeah? We were just four miles short of destination when the old bus broke down. The situation was obvious, of course, but I had no way of knowing what was going on around it. A bearded fellow sitting up front could speak just enough English to let me know that we'd been told a replacement bus should pick us up in twenty minutes. But since the driver had to go find a telephone to even try and make this happen, I had my doubts.
A few of the passengers didn't believe it, either - several middle-aged women together managed to hail a passing automobile. It suddenly seemed a very good idea, and I hauled my own baggage up the road a bit and started thumbing. Most of the passengers milling around the bus just looked dumbly at me, but one young fellow - a nerdy type, who had been reading computer magazines across the aisle from me - came up to assist. The Polish don't use their thumb, as I've always done, they give it a whole-arm wave, and my sudden friend succeeded in pulling a car over. And I needed him badly, for though he could manage slightly in English, the driver he hailed could understand not a bit of it. It ended with the helpful nerd running back for his own bags, and we all headed on together.
When we came to Cieszyn, I realized how very well Providence was looking out for me, for I could see nothing but hills and traffic, until the driver (at the nerd's behest) pulled up just short of a river bridge, which was precisely where I needed to be. We both got out there, but it was only I who needed to make the crossing, and after a few words of genuine gratitude for this angel who had suddenly taken over (as they always seem to, when needed!), I proceeded across on my own.
It was something less than a half-mile walk, from there to the Czech railway station - now in the town of Cesky Tesin - and I was guided along the way by an erudite gentleman who spoke English quite well, and had overheard my question to the border guard. I'd missed the 1:52 train, by now, but had time enough before the 3:08 to get a quick meal at a nearby hotel dining room, paying with Czech kroney that I had prudently made a trade for before leaving Heathrow. It was $3.90 for the lunch, with tip, and $5.80 for the five-hour trainride!
I was an old hand at all this, by now, and only moderately befuddled by the challenges at Prague's central train station. After all, I'd been through here already - twice before. Nevertheless, it did require another angel to refresh me on the subway system - an angel who even paid my 35-cent fare, because I lacked the proper change. But in the end, I had to wrestle with an impossibly monstrous traffic circle, in the darkness, that left me totally confused as to direction. When the rain started, I finally gave up, willing to pay a taxi driver $1.50 for the final few blocks of the journey - and in my utter confusion over the coinage, I left him a shameful seven-cent tip!
In a sense, this was a first-time Servas host for me, but I had met Roman on the earlier journey and had about an hour's conversation with him, over some matter that I do not now recall. I regretted, then - we both did - that I had no time left to remain in Prague, for we found an instant sense of rapport with each other. So it was a sure thing, this time, that I'd visit him and he'd host me. I met his wife, Iva, this time, and two mischievous children that they didn't yet have, before. And the rapport was still there, as strong as ever.
I stayed five nights with them - longer than Roman would have ordinarily felt comfortable with, for he had a lot of job responsibility on his shoulders as sales personnel mana-ger for the Czech outlet of Ford Motors. So I didn't see much of him on the weekdays, which was okay because I had enough to do on my own in Prague. One entire day, for example, was devoted to getting a box of purchases mailed home to myself, in a misadventure of dealing with the postal system that I'd rather not even recall, let alone recount. And I never did manage to find as many old bookstores, or see as much of the lovely art nouveau building decor, as I remember having been there before. Again . . . the contrast. Prague seems twice as thickly filled with tourists as before, and this time I tried to avoid those parts of town.
On the Sunday after I arrived, Roman took me on a drive (in a factory-new Ford) out to the little town of Domazlice, where I had run across that fabulous little man, Jan Prokop Holy, the 'town archivist' I wrote about in the book. What had been the entire town, to me - a network of narrow streets centering on a magnificently dimensioned square of Medieval buildings - is still there, intact; but from the perspective of the Ford, it is really the quaint centerpiece of a much larger settlement area, and so has lost a bit of its luster, for me. Technology inevitably diminishes enchantment. We were unable to make contact with Jan Prokop, as I had hoped to do - almost as if fate had stepped in to prevent me from tarnishing the heart of that earlier experience.
And by some quixotic bit of Providence, the Ford's 21st-Century, state-of-the-art technology took a funky plunge in Domazlice: the servo-mechanism controlling my passenger-side window suddenly quit, in the wide-open position. I rode the 80 miles back to Prague in a vengefully chill wind that seemed to be saying, "That's what you get, for not being satisfied to let things be."
I'm not so sure but that it wasn't the central message of my entire journey! I think we tamper with reruns at a huge risk, and sometimes a terrible cost - and I find myself especially driven to so tamper with the sanctity of the past gone by. I must either quit this fool's game, or learn to handle it better than I do.
There isn't space, here, to recount everything of the journey. I returned to England by way of Leipzig, and subsequently enjoyed a full relaxing week in Paris, hosted by the Servas friend I've come to know best, over the years - Evelyne, who has visited me twice in the States since that earlier journey. That was followed by a week of staying put, in one place, in London - the place being Marjory's, my longtime reliable host friend. But it was hard, even there, to recapture the feelings of what London was once like, for me. I had the good sense not to visit Balham, at least, where I'd spent that nitty-gritty winter. Almost every other charm that London held for me, though, was put to the test . . . and passed only with a toll of its recollected sparkle, if it passed at all.
So I learn. And I learn hard, I am afraid: Beware tampering with the past, lest such as it still holds for you should vanish!
I must tell a final tale, though, that casts some entirely different illumination on relating to the past. Those of you who have read the book will recall that there were two incredible synchronicities that marked the passage from my hopeful job-hunting days in London, to the hard and barren winter that I had to survive and master. But I'll tell the pertinent story for those who never read it, and it will refresh the memory of those who did. It revolved around a man named Michael Clarke, whom I simply referred to, in the book, as Clark; but I think it time, now, to revert to his real name.
I met Michael by way of a Servas host with whom I stayed during my first month abroad, when I was trying to get settled in London. Anthea and Barry were the names of the host couple, and they took me to some sort of alternative Sunday service, back then in late September of 1990, also attended by Michael. He was just about my own age, and we connected like two magnets pulled toward one another. He was conversant with a wide range of my own interests, motivated by much the same values, and before the afternoon was done he had invited me (on learning of my circumstances) to share his quarters for a few days toward the end of the week.
I needed that, of course, but I was far more interested in his friendship, for it felt the best and richest of any I had encountered since coming to London. And it seemed to get only better in the time I spent with him. But something happened that broke the spell, and I was never sure what. My only clue came about a month later, when I received from him a bundle of mail he thought was mine, together with a letter that, in rather cold terms, said I should never have had mail forwarded to his place without consulting him first.
But it wasn't my mail. What had happened is that within days from the time I left his first floor flat, someone named Thomas Irvin had moved into an upstairs unit, and Michael had been gathering in the poor fellow's mail all this time, thinking it was for me! I finally got it all squared away, but the explanation did not seem to entirely satisfy Michael, and I was never able to get with him again. I tried several times, but he was always too busy for me.
Well, the whole situation had such strange overtones, both in my unusual resonance with Michael and the decidedly unlikely mixup that had transpired, that I have ever since felt an eerie sense of connection with the man, and have even speculated that it may have something to do with the life coming up next for me. That might sound like an odd twist on the oft-considered past life connection, but I have reason to believe that seeds are planted in the October/November phase of the living cycle, and this was the very portion of my life during which I found myself in London.
Be that as it may, or not, Michael has ever since had a place in my reflections on such things, though we never communicated again. I did send him a copy of the book, suitably inscribed, but received not a word in response.
I had no intention of attempting a contact, on this return - his silence had made his indisposition toward me perfectly clear. But I did write to Anthea and Barry, who knew nothing at all, of the above - not from me, at least. Theirs was one of the addresses I had lost in Darmstadt, and so they merely never heard from me again. But in going through the new Servas list for Britain, I saw they were still in it, and I sent word that I'd love to connect again, if even for an afternoon visit. A briefly worded card came back from Anthea, and I was resolved to call them when the time felt right.
The moment came during my last week in London. I had just gone into town, with nothing in particular on my schedule for that Tuesday afternoon, and made the call at 12:30 in hopes of setting up a get-together for a day later in the week.
"I am so glad you called," said Anthea, with some level of real urgency in her voice. "There is going to be a memorial service for Michael Clarke, this afternoon, at St. James Church in Piccadilly. Can you make it?"
I was absolutely stunned, of course. At the news, to begin with, but more profoundly at the fact that almost seven years after I'd last seen Michael, and with that strange course of our brief friendship, I had returned to London, and made the phonecall just in time to attend his memorial service! I had two hours to get there.
Listening to the speakers, I realized once again what a remarkable man Michael had been. The interesting thing was that so many had the same perception as I: that he could talk on practically any subject with the expertise and conviction of someone who had been devoted to it all his life. I later had lunch with Anthea and Barry and a couple of their friends, hoping for some further clarification of the strange conjunction between Michael's life and mine, but nothing came of it. Except, perhaps, for the equally strange impression that we were all simply fulfilling bit castings in some unknowable drama. When the lunch was over, it was like the curtain came down.
He died in January, actually - about the time I was tussling with whether or not to make this journey, and just a short few weeks before I plunged for the booking. Was this really what I went abroad for? The thought spooks me, but I cannot escape it. I've certainly discovered no better reason.
1. to the Ripening
2 to the Main Staging area
3. Send response